Posts belonging to Category yoga



Lapping the couch

No matter how slow you are going, you are still lapping everyone on the couch.

The CouchYou may have encountered the above quote already. Obviously, it’s intended to serve as a spark of consolation when you find yourself trailing at the back of the kayak bunch, or when flubbing rolls, or simply whenever you’ve been comparing your efforts with those of some superhuman who probably only exists in your head. Even although you are a little slow/stiff/out-of-condition, you’re at least not as bad as that pizza-guzzling slob on the couch, also in your head.  But there lies a problem with the quote itself – it is once again doing comparing. This time, it’s you and the aforementioned slob. And that’s when things get tricky.

I’m kind of done with dualistic or competitive thinking such as: me versus (insert name of sporting hero here), me versus my 22 year-old self, me versus the imaginary couch-dweller, me versus you. It deals in delusion and doesn’t achieve much. Often only half the facts are available and many assumptions are made. For example, the person on the couch could be injured, or ill. There are many kayakers who have been in that very position and it has perhaps been the primary reason for them abandoning another activity, such as hillwalking, and taking up paddling instead. Alan is one of them.

Greenland rollingInjuries can teach you a lot (perhaps that’s why many kayakers are so wise). First of all, they force you to slow down and assess. This in turn breeds acceptance. Then you start to learn, not just about your injury, but how to help it heal and how to prevent it recurring. If it’s beyond that, then the human spirit has a way of finding other life-affirming interests. It can be a real voyage of discovery.

Many people have come to Greenland kayaking as a result of bodily incompatibilities with a Euro paddle. All it takes is a wrenched shoulder to prompt an investigation of more traditional methods of rolling and forward progress. The Inuit did know a thing or two, long before the Europeans. And therein lies a world of opportunity, with all sorts of morale-boosting accomplishments waiting to be attained, as well as a strong connection to the very origins of kayaking.

And where there is life, there is always hope – or rather, possibility. After finally overcoming an old hip problem, and many comeback attempts over the best part of a decade, not to mention the anguish associated with an unrelated but sombre diagnosis, I have unexpectedly returned to running. Heel-striking runnerOf course, this is an activity that has a strong association with injury. It didn’t ever occur to me that this shouldn’t necessarily be the case and that – like yoga, swimming or kayaking – there is a technique to be mastered which can prevent injury (and which I’m learning!), that state-of-the-art shoes might be harmful (heel-strikers beware!), that cross-training is vital, as is yoga plus strength and flexibility exercises generally. I’ve also been learning about the incredible benefits of plant-based whole foods for fuelling and rebuilding the body cell by cell (so many ultra-athletes can’t be wrong), as well as therapies such as Trigger Point and Active Release Technique (a foam roller is your friend). And I used to think I knew about running. Everything in life boils down to – and let’s get dualistic for a moment – awareness versus ignorance.

Most of all, I’ve been learning about the mind’s ability to focus on the positive, or the negative, and to therefore contribute towards a corresponding outcome. Years ago, I talked myself out of running and gave up on it featuring in my life again. It’s come as a real surprise to welcome it back, simply because I opened one more little window of possibility. I’m just working on shorter distances at the moment. Maybe one day they’ll amount to something. Maybe they won’t. Maybe it’ll just be nice to run along the shore road for a bit. Regardless, it’s a treasure. Kayaking has taught me to leave my Type A-ness at home and just try things out, to enjoy the scenery, to see what the sea and the wind bring. It can be applied throughout life.

Felix BaumgartnerOf course, when I spoke about making comparisons, I didn’t mean to confuse this with gaining inspiration from others. As I watched Felix Baumgartner fall 128,000 feet to Earth, I was dumbfounded by his bravery. If I were silly enough to make comparisons, let’s just say I was several places behind Felix when they were handing out the awesome – but that doesn’t stop me from being inspired by him. Even so, there is more to that particular story. Falling through space might not have fazed Felix, but wearing a spacesuit did, and the claustrophobia he experienced in practice runs nearly became a showstopper.  As I mentioned, sometimes you only know half the story.

For now, I’m thankful to be lapping the couch, whether someone happens to be on it or not. But I’d encourage anyone seated there not to give up, no matter how pointless it all feels. You just never know what windows are going to open and what sea breezes might come rushing in.

Because you are alive, everything is possible.

– Thich Nhat Hahn

Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival, Isle of Bute

Heading south

Heading south

A few weeks back, Roddy of Kayak Bute issued an invitation to attend the Scottish Women’s Sea Kayak Festival on Bute.  I’d also agreed to assist Mackayak (or, as I like to call her, Lesley) with teaching some traditional skills on the Monday. I thought it could possibly be fun, which turned out to be quite a serious under-estimation of my experience.

The programme of events contained various skills coaching sessions including forward strokes, close quartering and rescues, as well as a a circumnavigation of Bute, a trip to the Cumbraes and the said traditional skills class. I signed up for the round-Bute trip over Saturday and Sunday. Even although the Isle of Bute is very near my home and I do frequent its shores, I’d never gone all the way around it – a bit of a glaring omission in my paddling resume.

The base for the weekend was the campsite and tea-room at the lovely Ettrick Bay. After arriving there early on Saturday, we proceeded by car to Kerrycroy Bay to commence the round-island paddle.

Justine explains the course

Justine explains the course

Keeping land on our right …

The conditions were flat calm for most of Saturday, and this was conducive with chatting to fellow paddlers and coaches. This seems to be my year for meeting famous kayakers, the stars of (watery) stage and screen. First it was Cheri and Turner of Kayak Ways in May, and now it was adventurer and film-maker, Justine Curgenven, whose DVDs and global travels have been a source of inspiration to me since my early paddling days. It’s hard not to be a little bit star-stuck! But Justine’s affable company gave lie to notions of celebrity. The trip was also led by senior coach, Morag Brown of Skyak Adventures, who it was nice to finally meet. We were certainly in good hands. Paddlers came from as far north as Orkney, the south coast of England, and many points in between. It was interesting to learn about  the differences in the typical paddling environment of each participant and I pondered what type of kayaker I would be now if I lived in an area of big tides and ocean swell, if a typical paddling trip over to a nearby island meant the Isle of Wight as opposed to the Isle of Bute.

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Arran mountains ... and new friends

Travelling down the eastern coast of Bute, we were accompanied by several inquisitive grey seals, flocks of oystercatchers and kamikaze gannets before encountering porpoises as we approached the bottom of the island. It was with some personal amusement that we reached the southernmost point of Bute, an area that has little hazard signs flashing in my head, to find barely a ripple.  Turning the corner, we were greeted with the ever beautiful vista of the Arran mountains. The sea did become a little more textured after we passed Inchmarnock and neared Ettrick Bay when the breeze picked up, but I tried not to fixate on the rather nasty looking forecast I’d seen for the following day and only called Alan 3 or 4 times for an update.

Just some of the kayak fleet

Just some of the kayak fleet

I certainly had something to entice me back to the campsite in a hurry and that was the anticipation of my beautiful new Tiderace Xcite S kayak being there waiting for me. Sure enough, Kayak Bute did not disappoint and a very special package with my name on it was sitting on their trailer. Just as I’d started to feverishly tear off the packaging, I was called away to retrieve my car from the day’s starting point – a  cruel tease, really! Not to worry, I was soon back and was greeted by a friend informing me that she really loved my new kayak. What?! My eyes had not been the first to behold it! I did manage to forgive Roddy for unwrapping my Xcite S in my absence as – who can blame him – it really is too beautiful to remain smothered in bubble-wrap. I fought my way through the crowd of appreciative admirers and then joined them in oohing and awing over my new black and red baby. There was a substantial number of  Kayak Bute’s fleet of Tiderace kayaks adorning the campsite throughout the weekend. Those attendees who had not brought their own vessels could pick and choose which shiny new kayak to try out – a fantastic opportunity, although I’m not sure how Roddy kept track of them all! Presumably he has counted them all back in.

On Saturday evening, a buffet dinner of culinary delights was supplied by the team at Ettrick Bay tea room, after which we listened to two very interesting talks. The first was an amusing review by Alice McInnes (aka Alice Tiderace) which traced the history of women’s outdoor attire through the ages, from the tweed skirts of yesteryear (whose “blowing up” potential was a substantial danger), to modern, hi-tech kit and apparel. Next was a presentation by Justine about her circumnavigation (with Barry Shaw) of Tierra del Fuego, the videos and slides from which had everyone riveted. It certainly put my own small paddling anxieties into perspective! I’m very much looking forward to seeing the entire film when it’s released.

A nice day for a launch

Ettrick Bay

Ettrick Bay

Come Sunday, we were set to resume our circumnavigation with Justine again, along with another top coach, Kate Duffus. We departed from Ettrick Bay into a stiff southerly breeze and a rather more interesting sea state.  This would be a good test of my comfort level in the Xcite S (which I’ll be writing more about soon). Suffice to say, I was a very happy camper (in every sense). Passing Tighnabruaich, we rounded the northern end of Bute and approached the Burnt Islands. Many remarks were made about this being the most scenically beautiful part of the journey – which says a lot considering we were shrouded in damp mist! I wished I could show everyone how lovely it is in sunshine, but they’ll just have to take my word for it. We were then sheltered in the Kyles and crossed over to stop for lunch on the shore at Colintraive beside the ferry.

Approaching Kames Bay

Approaching Kames Bay

Crossing back over to Bute and rounding Ardmaleish Point, the sea state immediately became more exciting and it doesn’t get much better than to find myself enjoying every minute of it in my new kayak, with my Greenland paddle, and in the company of a great group of capable kayakers. Some of us ended our journey at Kames Bay where the omnipresent Kayak Bute van and trailer awaited, but Justine and Kate invited anyone who still felt energetic to continue on to complete the circumnavigation. I decided that, having paddled that part of the coast previously, my rounding of Bute was complete (and, no, that’s not cheating!).

After an excellent and much relished dinner at the tea room (I’m still not sure how it’s humanly possible to produce such a variety of desserts – I think elves may have been involved), we listened to a talk given by coach Sally Gregory on weather and tides. Sally’s presentation was succinct and informative, such that my sluggish brain could cope (and, besides, we got notes to take home). Next up was a very special highlight. Global adventurer, Sarah Outen, the first woman to row solo across the Indian Ocean, had arrived to deliver a presentation about her latest “London to London via the World” expedition. I had read Sarah’s book, A Dip in the Ocean: Rowing Solo Across the Indian Ocean, and followed her progress online, so it was an unexpected treat to meet her in person. Her account of her recent rescue after being battered by a typhoon whilst rowing across the Pacific was nothing short of sobering.  I think we all felt a bit of the emotion that lay behind her reflection on that experience and wished her every success as she takes fresh bearings to continue her adventure.

An ancient tradition

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it

It's yoga, Jim - but not as we know it (Photo courtesy Ruth Clark)

By Monday, the weather had decided to put a very damp stake in the ground just as we were unstaking our tents. Packing up a sopping wet tent is always a joy, only to be surpassed by trying to keep track of kit (there aren’t enough Ikea bags in the world …). Being that the ultimate objective of Greenland skills training is to get wet, however, the rain was no impediment to our eager band of students. We started out with familiarisation with skinny sticks, reviewing a collection of various types of wooden and carbon (Northern Light Paddlesports) versions. We went on to discuss the history of traditional Greenland kayaking, and the equipment and attire used. This was followed by a spot of stretching, combining 2 ancient traditions by using selected yoga poses  to prepare for the body movements of Greenland rolling. I can honestly say it’s the first time I’ve ever done yoga in a drysuit in a deluge of rain. Slipping into a tuilik, I embraced the role of “glamorous assistant” while Lesley prepared to perform some special Greenlandic magic.

Lesley demonstrates

Lesley demonstrates

The group was introduced to Lesley’s sleek, black Tahe Greenland kayak which she went on to skilfully and  gracefully roll, explaining each move knowledgeably. It was then everyone else’s turn to try out for themselves a bit of balance bracing, rolling and forward paddling and several firsts were achieved and rolls were polished up. The “Green virus” (as Turner calls it) was duly spread, and I believe that there may now be a small uptick in sales of Justine’s “This Is The Roll” DVD.

I am inspired

Scottish Women's Sea Kayak FestivalParticipants were asked what they liked best about the Festival and, without hesitation, my response was the inspiration it provided me. I don’t mean to get into a discussion on the merits of a women’s event other than to say that perhaps, being a woman, I relate particularly well to the experience of other women.  The enthusiasm and willingness to share skills displayed by the coaches present (Justine Curgenven, Morag Brown, Kate Duffus, Carol Lang, Sally Gregory and Lesley Mackay) were a source of encouragement and motivation in themselves.  There were also the attendees with their varied backgrounds and experiences of sea kayaking and, indeed, of life – from the skilled northern and southern coasters, to those who were sharpening up abilities after some absence (undeterred by a bit of wind), to those who have endured significant injury and illness. Lesley, of course, with her beautiful Greenland expertise and solid insights, has been of great help to me for some time now, and it was especially enjoyable to work and share with her. And Sarah’s courageous adventures are enough to grip anyone in the force-field of her determination and positivity.

Participants were also asked what they thought could be improved. I’m not sure if my request for a little more sunshine is reasonable. At least there were no midgies.

Thank you!

A big thanks goes out to everyone who made the Festival such a great success, including all the participants. In particular, Roddy and Sally of Kayak Bute, and Alice of Tiderace Kayaks, who were the engine room of the event. I was seriously impressed by their ability to manage the formidable logistics.  The fact that profits were going to the RNLI made it all the more worthwhile.

The word “Festival” is synonymous with “celebration” and it truly did feel like I spent the weekend celebrating with others how very fortunate we are to be sea kayakers.

See Photo Gallery

Upside down, and round and round

Balance bracePool sessions have been very beneficial in reviving our Greenland rolling skills after a winter break but – even better – we have also been practising those skills outside again. This makes us happy! The weather threw a complete wobbly (of the good kind) last week and we were hurtled straight into summer – in March.  It was actually a bit strange and disorienting but, all troubling thoughts of climate change and weather modification aside, we decided to make the most of it. I should add that, before everyone gets too weirded out, it’s now snowing and blowing a gale.

As soon as the temperature edges above, say, 12°C in Scotland and the sun comes out, everyone is dressed in their shorts and tee-shirts (and the glare off of white skin can be seen from space). So, at 20°C, it did seem a bit odd to be layering up for immersion, but the water temperature confirmed that this was quite necessary. After a couple of standard Greenland rolls, it became apparent that the layering system was effective and that the water’s iciness was not penetrating much at all. I moved on to butterfly, then norsaq then hand rolls and realised that the contrast with the zero buoyancy at the pool was huge. It almost felt like cheating – so much so, that I took my BA off and have now consigned it to the “not required while rolling” gear bag. This is progress and has made the struggling in the pool worthwhile. It’s true that failure is a stepping stone to success.

We’ve started working on forward finishing rolls and have made some inroads. After watching Maligiaq and Dubside’s DVD, we are going through the “progression” steps and Alan is off and running on his own, whilst I need someone to hold my hand/paddle as I fumble about trying to get my head around this whole new technique. If ever there was a roll that would benefit from yoga (paschimottanasana in particular), it’s this one. Working our way through all of the official Greenland rolls is going to take a while, but we’ve been working on a few more now, including the elbow crook, shotgun and paddle-behind-the-head (presently aka stuck-under-the-kayak) roll.

It’s interesting to note that we both feel real improvement in our Euro rolls. The nuances of blade angle are less important and now it feels like we have a big blade surface to help (versus impede) us.

As we count down towards our much anticipated training with Kayak Ways, we are not short of resources to help us learn. Any day now, 2 DVDs will be released:  as already mentioned, Justine Curgenven (of the excellent “This Is the Sea” series) has produced “This Is The Roll“, featuring none other than Kayak Ways’ Cheri Perry and Turner Wilson. Christopher Crowhurst (of “Qajaq Rolls” fame) has produced a “Rolling With Sticks” DVD to accompany his very handy book of the same name. We are getting spoiled!

For the past several days, it so happens that I’ve had a tab open in my browser window directed to the “Buy now” page for a Brooks tuilik. I’m not sure how that happened – I mean, I am coping without a tuilik. Although, I do feel a little restricted when rotating. And maybe it would allow me to ditch a fleece or two. And I don’t mind whatsoever being compared to a seal (in fact, I’d be flattered). I don’t want to be impulsive … but I am open to persuasion.

Life in balance

Yoga balanceIt started off with yoga class. Each week, our teacher designs a sequence of asanas to address a specific focus, for example: back bends, forward bends, hip openers, twists or, as was the case last week, balance. When Jude informed us that we were about to embark upon a balancing adventure (or words to that effect), I readied myself for the voyage of inward discovery that this usually entails.

The thing about balance is that it is not a given. It could go either way. It takes effort and concentration and, as our teacher pointed out to us, when you are balancing – be it in tree pose or crow or eagle or whatever – you are not thinking about anything else. After arriving at yoga class with a head full of chatter, stress and judgements, it is no bad thing to empty it all out whilst tottering on one’s tippy toes (or hands) and quite possibly, in the process, discovering previously unknown capabilities. Even so, the prospect can cause some pre-asana anxiety, perhaps because we aren’t very good at handling uncertainty and balancing is, in a way, a state of sustained uncertainty.

With this in mind, the following day I set off to do some rolling practice. I’ve recently been working quite diligently on norsaq and hand rolls, but on my previous outing, I lost my hand roll completely and my norsaq roll seemed a bit of a struggle. This left me with a sense of unfinished business which is quite a distortion really. I mean, if I were to get hung up on unfinished things, there would be rather an endless list to ponder (the other 30+ Greenland rolls, learning to speak French, the housework …). But still, the thought of having lost my hand roll  irritated me like velcro underwear, and I had to address it.

Balance BraceAt some deeper level, I intuited that there was a missing link in my versions of those rolls that don’t involve a paddle. I’ve mentioned before how a Greenland paddle acts as a teacher and, certainly, rolling with this ancient technology is a bit like grasping a hand from the past. When the paddle is there, I have found that it can guide you through the water and allow you to position your body appropriately, without struggle,  if you let it. Without the paddle, the rolls were all down to me and seemed to require a lot more exertion and striving. After starting off badly, oomphing my way through yet another failed attempt, I reminded myself of the advice given to me by Mackayak in Orkney which was to focus first and foremost on the balance brace. I also recalled being inspired by this particular video which clearly demonstrates effortless hand rolling up into, indeed, a balance brace. I had only ever experienced this before with the help of my paddle as part of a butterfly roll. I therefore realised that it’s not all about desperately competing for success on the back deck, so much as simply reaching a state of  balance.

I proceeded to practice slipping on and off of the deck of my kayak with the aid of my paddle, then letting go of the paddle whilst maintaining the brace. I then focused on getting back on to the back deck in one swift move as this essentially constitutes the last part of the roll. Next up, I tried a full norsaq roll. For the first time, I did not aim for glorious success in one movement, but rather I sought to simply reach the surface of the water and stay there. To my delight, it was a quite achievable thing, and then purely a case of getting from there to the back deck as I’d practised. Next, I tried it with my webbed rolling mitts, with the same result. A breakthrough!

Just like in yoga, balancing in Greenland rolling is all about clearing out distracting thoughts (of anxiety, success, failure, unfinished housework) and simply concentrating on holding a steady bearing right in this very moment. In many respects, it is a Middle Way, a path of moderation and equilibrium between the extremes of hopeless defeatism and questionable triumph. Perhaps in times of uncertainty, it’s the best path to take.

Familiarity breeds content

Paddling against the windWhile the rest of the northern hemisphere basks in summer sunshine, we have been soaking up all the rain, wind and cool temperatures that only Scotland can provide in July. Theoretically this might sound like a miserable prospect, but as the wise and ancient adage goes – when life hands you lemons, add some salt and tequila! And the same applies for the weather. We could choose to spend the rainy, windy days indoors playing dominoes, or we could go out and paddle anyway. And so we have been squirting those lemons right back in life’s eye. Who wants sunshine and balmy conditions anyway?

I know what you’re thinking: who is this and what have you done with Pam? The fact is that lately I have, through a process of gradual coercion immersion (the type that hasn’t involved too much capsizing, fortunately), become increasingly familiar with conditions that lie in the F4/5 slot on the Beaufort Scale.

After our exciting day out off Cumbrae, we went along to practice night at the RWSABC when the wind was making a direct hit on the bay and veritable breakers were rolling ashore. A few deep breaths and out I went into the fray. It wasn’t long before (what felt like) a rather large wave caught my stern and powered me forwards with such speed that I thought that it might see me hurtled into the club bar to get in an early round of ginger beers. A little shaken, I landed and collected my nerves before heading back out, by which time the waves had subsided a tiny bit.

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley

A lovely summer's day out on the PS Waverley (I'd rather be paddling!)

Last Saturday was yet another grey and windy day, so we decided that it wasn’t worth venturing too far away. Launching at Lazaretto Point, it had all the feel of one of our winter’s day paddles, and we headed east out of the Holy Loch. It took us about 10 minutes to reach Kilcreggan – well, I exaggerate, but with the F4-5 westerly wind behind us, we scooted along as if engine-powered, scarcely requiring a paddle stroke. As much as this was all very pleasurable, our enjoyment was tempered by the realisation that this could only mean one thing for the return journey.

Scooting along

Scooting along

We fortified ourselves at the cafe on the waterfront of Kilcreggan, another establishment that is kind to sodden paddlers and doesn’t mind saltwater puddles forming on the floor. Soon, we were back on the water experiencing the full-frontal force of the wind. There’s no denying it, this was quite a slog. I made a concerted effort not to gauge my progress against any landmarks as I knew this would only result in depression. On the bright side, it proved an excellent opportunity to work on maximum forward stroke efficiency, focusing on rotation and paddle grip in particular. I explored the fine line between lessening my grip on the paddle so as to prevent raging tendinitis, and having the paddle whipped from my hands. The gusts were sufficient to bring us to a halt on occasion and we contemplated a shore stop at Cove before deciding to plough ahead regardless. There were some moments of respite, but the gusts experienced upon reaching the Holy Loch were some of the most fearsome of the day.

Rescue "practice"

Rescue "practice"

A few feet from the shore, my wind-ravaged senses became aware of some wobbling going on to my left. Almost in slow motion, I observed Alan inelegantly capsizing in what looked like a most unintended way. As Alan floundered about in the water, my finely honed rescue skills immediately kicked in, but I discarded them in favour of a fit of the giggles. The official story regarding this embarrassing debacle (avidly watched/photographed by our fellow paddlers and various pedestrians on the shore-side) was that Alan was paddling Julia’s Pintail and, due to a lack of practice at emerging from that particular kayak, he managed to tip himself over whilst doing some sort of yoga pose in the cockpit. Actually, he tells me that he was in fact trying to disengage his foot from the kayak in preparation for landing. What resulted was a fiasco hybrid between a self-rescue and an assisted rescue. I will share some key learnings:

  • The rescuer should not giggle at the rescuee. It is considered bad form.
  • The rescuee should not shout at the rescuer.
  • The rescuee should follow the rescuer’s instructions, even if the rescuer is his wife.
  • The rescuer should refrain from saying “I told you so” afterwards, no matter how tempting.

One thing for sure is that paddling into F4/5 wind provides an excellent workout, although I confess to moving a bit like a turtle the next day, until I’d done some yoga at least.

Happy place, despite the weather

Happy place, despite the weather

Aside from the practical benefits to be gained from increased familiarity with rougher conditions, there are some considerable psychological ones too. With more windy weather under my belt, I am no longer hitting “Refresh” on the Met Office website weekend forecast on a Wednesday. Gone is the nervous anxiety created by predicted gusts that only a few weeks ago would have seen me bailing out of a trip. And all told, it serves to increase the number of available paddling opportunities, which can’t ever be a bad thing. Living in Scotland, it’s not as if we can hold off and wait for summer to arrive.

Moving goalposts (and pushing envelopes)

Fairlie to Cumbrae and backThe summer days of July have well and truly arrived here on the west coast of Scotland. How do I know?

  • The calendar says so.
  • The schools are all on holiday.
  • It’s blowing a gale and raining torrentially.
  • The garden now looks like a bombing range.

Yes, gone is the tranquility of balmy May and June and now we have some proper Scottish summer weather.  Never mind, we have used this as an opportunity to switch focus from journeying, to expanding our skills and experience in less-than-tranquil conditions.

Alan is happy

Alan is happy

On that note, I’ve seen a change in Alan recently. Gone is the mild-mannered, fair-weather paddler I loved and in his place is this other chap, whose eyes light up at the sight of white caps, whose shoulders slump at the prospect of calm seas, who laughs (I’d say a little demonically) at wind and waves. All of which places yours truly in an awkward position.

Anyone who knows me as a kayaker will not immediately leap to associations of high-risk, adrenaline-soaked feats of paddling derring-do at the mention of my name. Rather, they might think of a nice, sensible day out in nice, sensible conditions with perhaps some seal-spotting and a bit of lunch thrown in. Regardless, and no matter how much I drag my heels along the sand, somehow I find myself bobbing about on lumpy seas more than my nice, sensible self thinks desirable. Alan’s latest proclivity is therefore not helping.

On our way to Cumbrae

On our way to Cumbrae

The word came from Julia that a group was going out on Saturday and we were invited to join in. I’d seen the forecast of background winds of nearly 20 mph and gusts of over 30 mph. In addition, Julia used certain phraseology that caught my attention, such as: “looking for waves”, and something (that I think was intended as reassurance) about folks being available to “pick up the pieces if things go pear-shaped”. I duly convinced myself that this was not for me. No thank you. I would be perfectly happy staying at home sobbing at my complete lack of gumption catching up on housework. I’d even changed into non-paddling attire, when Alan informed me that wild horses wouldn’t stop him he’d quite like to go. He then advised that, for reasons of kayak-loading group logistics, he couldn’t double up with Julia and he’d therefore be in the car on his own … with an empty cradle beside his kayak …

My hat out kayaking

My hat out kayaking

So there I was heading down to Fairlie, trying my best to drown out all the little alarm bells sounding inside my head. I was reminded of my yoga practice, where certain postures are made so much more difficult by mental (and physical) resistance and I tried not to become my own worst enemy. Once on the water, we aimed for Great Cumbrae. It was a bit of a slog and I rued my inaction about pursuing a repair to my skeg. For some time, it’s been a bit sticky, to say the least. Once it’s down, it’s all the way down and no further adjustment (including retraction) is possible. I therefore prefer to leave it up. Lewis kindly reminded me to edge and this immediately assisted matters.

Nearing Millport

Nearing Millport

Upon reaching Cumbrae, we proceeded towards Millport. With southwesterly winds blowing, the south end of Great Cumbrae is associated with a certain quality of wildness, something I’d been anticipating since our destination was made known. Upon reaching that locale, Alan’s eyes duly lit up while mine didn’t so much light up as fill up. Well, not exactly … but the waves did take on a slightly more formidable quality and I found myself once again seated in the departure lounge of my comfort zone. Maria prompted me to remember that, as much as there is a certain awe and beauty in the waves, it’s actually better to paddle vigorously through them as opposed to stopping to admire them.

The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Inside my head

Lewis also helped me with various pointers and assurances, including an exercise in paddling with one’s eyes closed to gain an appreciation of the fact that the waves are merely moving up and down. This certainly helped me swap out the images inside my head with something more akin to, you know, reality. It is very much a head game, where the senses undergo a bit of an onslaught and the mind takes off and runs with it.

Millport

A nice spot for lunch

Observed by a lone grey seal, we stopped for lunch at one of the little islands in front of Millport just in time for the sun to come out. Thereafter, it was back into the rough and tumble for a play. The word “play” does suggest fun and enjoyment, doesn’t it? I could see that that was the experience of my “playmates” and I envied their confidence. I found heading into the wind quite do-able and would probably have ended up on the shores of Little Cumbrae had it not been agreed that we were not to do that. I am not super-keen on paddling downwind in such conditions. I like to know what’s behind me and my imagination runs riot as soon as I feel my stern lift. I then become caught in a battle between learning the skills to best handle the surf and stay upright, and not becoming distracted from staying the heck upright. Out on the waves, rational thought becomes optional. But, like everything else, it’s a question of getting used to it. Meanwhile, Alan’s grin was getting wider.

I get by with a little help ...

I get by with a little help ...

We re-grouped to head back to Fairlie. This meant negotiating the bigger waves again side on and I very much appreciated the company of Lewis as we rounded the bend to the east side of Great Cumbrae.

Alan had already practised his roll successfully out off Millport, but I saved mine for the end. I’ve had a little trouble on practice nights lately and have only now determined that it relates to using my spare (Lendal) paddle. My roll is feeling great with my Werner paddle, but not so great with the Lendal. Another little piece of the blade angle puzzle to figure out. On this day, I was using the Werner, so all was well and there were no tears before bedtime.

Heading back

Heading back

During the return journey, I noticed that, already, the goalposts had moved, the envelope had been pushed (and sealed and mailed off) and that what I would have thought of as a bit choppy when we started out, was now a welcome patch of (relative) calm. This is why opportunities such as these are so good for anyone who wants to become a more self-confident paddler. I read a commentary recently about how a fear of dying can become a fear of living. Likewise, in the world of sea kayaking, a fear of conditions can, if one is not careful, become a fear of learning.

Seeing as I wrote this on July 4th, I don’t mind declaring my interdependence on, and appreciation of, a group of friends who happen to be rather good at paddling. It has made all the difference to Alan and me to be able to push ourselves and, judging by that grin that’s still on Alan’s face, I have a feeling those goalposts aren’t going to stay put for long.

And I, I don’t want no money from you
I don’t want promises that you’ll be true
You can do anything you wanna do
All I ask is that you … you push me to my breaking point …

The Breaking Point, Shooter Jennings and Hierophant, Black Ribbons

Getting warmer

Karitek Demo Day at FairlieAfter a weekend off from kayaking (other than the pool), it was back to normal last weekend as a group of us rendezvoused at Fairlie on Saturday. This was in order to coincide with the Karitek demo day being held there as we were all anxious to fondle the lovely range of Rockpool, P&H and UKSK kayaks on display. Of course, Alan and I are not in the market for another kayak, but it’s always nice to look at the latest offerings regardless. Hopefully the good people of Karitek didn’t notice mind one chap testing out Alan’s Nordkapp.  We bumped into quite a few “well kent” faces from the paddling world and it was only after Alan had launched my kayak without me in it that I took the hint, stopped chatting and  jumped in. Apart from anything else, I didn’t want it to be inadvertently taken out for a demo and returned to Karitek!

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

Approaching Wee Cumbrae

We headed over to Little (or Wee) Cumbrae and stopped there for lunch. The island is under new management in the form of the Patanjali Yog Peeth Trust. As a yoga student myself, I am of course pleased that the island will be used as a centre for yoga and the promotion of ayurvedic wellbeing and non-harming – a much more favourable prospect than the potential shooting and quad biking options that were advertised on the prior “for sale” listing (somewhat oxymoronically alongside birdwatching). I have it on good authority that the owners are welcoming to sea kayakers, merely requesting that visitors respect the island’s ethos, although disappointingly allegedly, it is not necessary to swear an oath of vegetarianism in order to land (but don’t quote me on that).

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

View from atop Wee Cumbrae Castle

We consumed lunch beside the square Castle remains and did a bit of exploration both inside and outside. Sufficiently fortified (us, not the Castle), we were back in our kayaks to cross over to Millport on Great Cumbrae for further sustenance in the form of a hot beverage in the Ritz Cafe. Following that, we hopped back to Fairlie, passing Hunterston’s terminal where a bulk carrier all the way from China was now berthed. Landing back at the beach should have been an uneventful affair, had it not been for Alan’s back going into a spasm which found him writhing about on the ground emitting “man groans” (akin to “man flu” in terms of the immensity of suffering involved). Not only that, my efforts to assist my fellow paddlers went horribly awry when I tripped over a stone and promptly dropped my end of Henrik’s kayak.  Henrik was very gracious about it and I didn’t even see him applying the duct-tape before putting his kayak back on the car roof.

Heading to Millport

Heading to Millport

One thing had become apparent during our outing and that was the almost, but not quite, spring-like quality to the day. In fact, we almost, but not quite, entirely dispensed with our pogies, neck gaiters and hats. At least I thought about it. Any weekend  now, I reckon.

And speaking of getting warmer, we’ve been trundling along to the pool each Friday evening to diligently work on skills improvement. A week ago on Friday, I jumped in, capsized and had the mental equivalent of a computer’s “blue screen”. The rolling program in my mind did not start and all that was left in my head was a blinking cursor.

Action shot

Action shot

There was no-one more surprised than I was about this. But it was actually a good thing as it caused me to have a total “reboot” (I won’t say where). I took myself (and Alan) back up to the shallow end and got right back to basics, once again building up what I consider to be the 2 core elements: sweep and head position. A bit of video replay had revealed a virtual absence of both which I soon corrected and was back feeling more confident by the end of the evening. In retrospect, I’d known that something wasn’t quite right the week beforehand and that my rolls were pretty laboured, but I hadn’t been able to fix it. So sometimes it’s better to utterly fail in order to deconstruct then reconstruct. The key is not to self-destruct, and that initself is a skill.

“You’re the only one who knows when you’re using things to protect yourself and keep your ego together and when you’re opening and letting things fall apart, letting the world come as it is – working with it rather than struggling against it. You’re the only one who knows.”
Ani Pema Chödrön

New Year’s intentions

What better way to start the year than on the water, even if it is a little chilly out there? Recent weather would suggest that the much rumoured “switching off” of the Gulf Stream (which is supposed to keep our climate from going the way of Canada’s) has now occurred. We’ve had snow and ice on the ground for so long now, I can barely recall the colour of grass. OK, I exaggerate – but it has been a couple of weeks at least since our “big freeze” began and it’s going to take a bit of practice to re-learn how to walk without shuffling or clinging on to walls and such by the time the thaw does come.

No such worries on the water and New Year’s Day found a group of us shaking off 2009 with a refreshing paddle from the Holy Loch to Loch Long and back. Some eejit suggested that, in the tradition of the New Year’s Day “dook” (trans: swim), a New Year’s Day roll might be in order. Fortunately no-one heard me.

Palm River Tec Paddle Mitts

Palm River Tec Paddle Mitts

Santa was very good to well-behaved paddlers this year, and I donned my new Arctic gale-proof Palm River Tec pogies, eager to test them out. Northern Kayaker has already reviewed them here – and I concur with her opinion. They are a little tricky to get on, I’d say impossible without the use of teeth. I’m thinking about asking Palm what they recommend – surely it’s not the inelegant tugging and biting performance that I put on (people with dentures can forget it). Once in position, however, the pogies sure are toasty.

 

Alan - back on the water (for a little bit)

Alan - back on the water (and testing my pogies)

Suitably bolstered by this auspicious start to the paddling year, I was back out on the water a couple of days later, but this time a special treat was in store – the return of Alan! After hand surgery which was immediately preceded by a sternum injury, the latter being particularly debilitating, he has been out of commission since October. We didn’t go too far, not wishing to cause re-injury, but it was lovely to float about on the Clyde and do a bit of seal-spotting on a bright winter’s day. And it was especially lovely to see Alan back in a kayak. I have missed him.
Bustin' a moveI do like to set a few intentions at this time of year (or in the yoga nidra tradition, some sankalpas). I won’t bore you with the minutiae of my more minor resolutions (mostly addressing sugar intake and time spent on LOLcats). It would be easy to say my primary intention is to go paddling (well … it is!). But I will also mention my other “big ticket” item, which does tie in: I intend to live in the present tense. It is, after all, the only thing that exists – the past and the future reside only in our minds, and all we have is this very moment. Kayaking has a way of plonking you straight into the moment and making you literally sit up and pay attention. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why we get so much out of it, because it relieves us of all the other “junk” in our heads for a short while. And what a relief it is.

On that note, as we raise a glass to the New Year, indeed, the new decade, let’s also raise a glass to this very moment.

Makes much more sense to live in the present tense.
Present Tense
, No Code, Pearl Jam

Four star paddling

For those of you who may have stumbled across this post and are now anticipating a discourse on the various components of the BCU 4 Star Sea Kayaking syllabus, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. The assessment to which I refer does not relate to paddling capability. It does, however, relate to that other essential requirement when out on the water – style!

Would someone turn the lights on?

Would someone turn the lights on please?

Yes, you’ve either got or you haven’t got it, and I’m pleased to mention that it so happens that my paddling pals are not lacking when it comes to a bit of upmarket class. Of course, they are perfectly capable of getting “down and dirty” in rough weather, wilderness camping, surviving on berries type situations, but they are also capable of accommodating a more civilised, leisurely and altogether tasteful approach to sea kayaking when the opportunity presents.

And such opportunities tend to present themselves on winter days, when one feels the need to reward oneself for simply getting out of bed on the water, such are the temperatures and general dreichness. Conditions last Saturday were calm, although the lighting resembled that of a nuclear winter (a not altogether inappropriate analogy as I shall later explain). It was so dim, my camera seemed convinced I’d left the lens cover on and refused to focus, although I did manage one or 2 gloomy shots. Not even Barrie’s orange glow could brighten things up.

Just as we were about to launch, a group of road cyclists breezed past us, one of whom shouted, “And we thought we were mad!”. As Maggi helpfully reminded them, at least sea kayakers don’t break anything when they fall over.

A spot of kayak yoga on Loch Long

A spot of kayak yoga on Loch Long

We departed from the Holy Loch and, in what might be called setting a trend (for a couple of us at least), we once again headed in the direction of Knockderry. An initial spot of choppiness gave way to some flat water conditions quite in keeping with the leisurely, stylish day that we had planned (although one of our number was heard to complain pitifully about a lack of waves, like it was a bad thing). Soon Knockderry House Hotel came into view and we landed elegantly on the beach. The hotelier and staff greeted us at the door by informing us that the “men in white boats” would be arriving shortly. How thrilling, I thought – more kayakers! Until someone informed me that I’d misheard and that the word used had, in fact, been “coats”. You might therefore think that this would suggest that our soggy presence was not desired in such a fine, 4 star establishment as the Knockderry House Hotel, however, that was not the case at all as we were heartily welcomed into the (now legendary) warmth of the bar lounge.

Our table awaits ... Knockderry House Hotel

Our table awaits ... Knockderry House Hotel

Menus were handed out and soon we were selecting our choices for lunch. I didn’t even hear the chef cursing from the kitchen after being presented with the various quirks and limitations presented by the 2 “special” diners amongst us who were trying to avoid death by allergic anaphylaxis and/or any food with a face. Our waitress insisted that we should eat lunch in the restaurant despite our embarrassment at not having dressed for the occasion, although Barrie subsequently pointed out that he did have a suit on (albeit a wetsuit). Our embarrassment was only mildly alleviated by the fact that we were, in fact, the only diners. Suffice to say, Knockderry House Hotel gets an enthusiastic thumbs up for its amiability and hospitality towards sea kayakers. If you’re in the vicinity, do call by and experience it for yourself (just leave your spraydeck and BA outside).

After lunch, a quick demonstration was given by Julia of yoga-for-kayaking which involved a good deal of rolling about on the bar floor. I know what this must have looked like (and have deliberately withheld the potentially incriminating photos), but you have to take my word that it was serious sea kayaking business. We then exited back into the gloom and cold.

Vanguard submarine

Vanguard submarine

And so back to matters nuclear. Our return journey found us sharing the water with a large Vanguard class submarine, a common sight on the Clyde, making its way to the Faslane base. I am reliably informed that this vessel can carry a payload of 16 American Trident missiles. As a bit of a sobering exercise, I did a little calculation on this and I estimate that one such submarine can pack 7600 times the explosive punch of the bomb that dropped on Hiroshima (do correct me if I’m wrong here). Having tuned into my VHF radio, it was unsurprising to find that they were not broadcasting their maneouvres on Channel 16 and a quick scan failed to reveal the no doubt top secret, encrypted military channel that they were using to communicate (in Navajo, I imagine) with their small flotilla of RIBs and MOD Police escorts. We resisted the urge to go join the procession for fear of being shot shooed away.

Heading home

Heading home

This had proven an interesting, although slightly surreal, distraction, but we were soon back at the Holy Loch just as a rain shower moved in. After some fumbling around, our numb hands managed to tie the odd knot sufficient to keep the kayaks at least partially secured to the roofracks until we reached Julia’s for the obligatory end-of-journey, recap-and-reflect-on-a-lovely-day-out cup of tea.

As you can tell, I am quite a fan of this most proper form of sea paddling. If I am to aspire to any kind of star system, this is the one that perhaps holds the most promise for me personally and that contains any hope at all of attaining 5 stars!

Proper sea kayaking

After spending another Friday anxiously hitting the “Refresh” button whilst viewing the Met Office site on my Web browser, I realised that there was no getting away from it – Saturday (14 Nov) was going to be windy. Indeed, I awoke to a view of a very choppy Clyde, as well as a strange lack of appetite. It was decision-time: should I call my friends and wimp out, or bite the bullet and show up for a day’s paddling? This is a difficult judgement call when one must weigh up one’s abilities versus the nuances of the weather forecast versus imagined fears versus the abilities of one’s fellow paddlers. No-one likes to be a liability but, at the same time, how can you progress from liability to asset without going out and gaining experience? Eventually, and in the spirit of the yogic concept of “letting go”, I decided to go with the flow, to turn up and see what would happen.

I tried to ignore the view to my right as I drove along the Innellan and Dunoon shore road, although occasional bouts of jostling, confused waves caught my attention. There’s nothing like a dose of clapotis to make you feel a bit squeamish in the morning.

A sense of foreboding

A sense of foreboding

My paddling pals couldn’t help but express some congenial surprise at my appearance. No, not my stylish fleecewear, but more to do with the fact that I am not known for jumping to the head of the queue when rough water paddling opportunities arise. I instantly latched upon their reaction as a cue for me to bow out gracefully after an obvious misjudgement on my part. They, however, would hear none of it and insisted that I join them, even although (being that they are of advanced abilities) I am certain it meant an adjustment to their potentially more ambitious plans.

The prevailing wind was due to be westerly, so it was decided that we would put in at Ardentinny with a view to considering 2 potential destinations. Magda profferred a choice between the “warmth” (emphasis hers) of Knockderry House Hotel on the eastern side of Loch Long, or the (somewhat cooler) “mysteries” of Carrick Castle to the north. Purely because at least 2 of us had recently visited Carrick Castle (and for no other reason), we decided to head for Knockderry.

Crossing Loch Long was breezy but manageable and, despite all of my noises to the contrary, I will confess (just a tiny bit, let’s not get carried away now) that I do enjoy some weather. I love the feeling of freedom that is afforded by being out in the midst of the elements in your small craft, the sense of being in a minority of fortunate folks who have the chance to experience this level of exposure to nature. Surrounded by changing seas, and skies that range from bright to brooding, being followed by the occasional seal and laughed at by the seabirds, certainly beats sitting at home*.

We duly reached the shores of Knockderry and I managed a small surf landing, something I definitely need to practise. The great thing is that, in my Isel (with its lovely footplate), I now have sensation in my feet upon exiting my kayak and can walk like a normal person up the beach. I am still getting over the novelty of this.

The warmth of Knockderry House Hotel

Knockderry House Hotel

It seems that the owners and staff at the Knockderry House Hotel have no issues with sea kayakers dripping their way into their cosy and well-appointed establishment. Magda had been correct about the warmth as we took up prime position next to the log fire. Just the ticket! As a well-known coach has commented already (hello Richard) – this was proper sea kayaking! Lunch was served and it certainly looked very nice. Due to previously referenced dietary issues, I chose instead to dine later al fresco in the shelter of Lewis’s luxury emergency shelter. This wasn’t bad at all actually – the company was excellent and, unlike the others, I had cake.

Soon we were gazing out to the white horses on Loch Long and, I suddenly noticed that I was feeling absolutely no sense of anxiety at the sight of them. Obviously, the company that I keep (and that would include my Isel) is having an influence upon me.

White horses on Loch Long (Me? Bovvered?)

White horses on Loch Long

We battled our way against the wind to the other side of the loch and, upon reaching more sheltered waters, we proceeded to chat about important paddling matters. From Lewis I learned a great deal about paddle types, lengths and blade sizes and we swapped paddles in order for me to experience a Werner Shuna carbon model – an interesting revelation.

No paddle expedition is complete these days without a cuppa at Julia’s on the way home, at which point some time was spent exploring Facebook and its many uses. Against my better judgement, I now have an account and am publishing away merrily there as well. Between Facebook, my blog and all the many useful paddling forums and Websites out there, if I’m not careful, I’ll soon have no time for actual paddling. I know, I’m just being ridiculous. I could always give up work.

* With apologies to Alan who is still sitting at home battling injury.